Starring: Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta Jones, Benicio Del Toro, Don Cheadle, Miguel Ferrer
Director: Steven Soderbergh
“Traffic” cleaned up this year at the Oscars, winning Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor and Best Editing. Director, Steven Soderbergh is not exactly a newcomer, his previous credits are 1989’s controversial “Sex, Lies and Videotape” and 1998 thriller “Out of Sight”. But he is now best known for the multi-threaded “Traffic”, a many-perspective look at the effects of drug culture.
Mexican cops, Javier (Oscar winner, Del Toro – “The Usual Suspects”, “Way of the Gun”, “Snatch”) and Manolo (Jacob Vargas – “Get Shorty”, “Crimson Tide”) battle against corruption in their own police force as they attempt to crack the major drug families in their home land.
In California, Agent Castro (Luis Guzman – “Bone Collector”, “Snake Eyes”, “Boogie Nights”, “Carlitos Way”) and Agent Gordon (Cheadle – “Swordfish”, “Mission to Mars”, “Out of Sight”) are on stakeout as they protect Eduardo Ruiz (Ferrer – “Hot Shots Part Deux”, “The Assassin”) after he agrees to give evidence against his drug-trafficking boss, Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer). Ayala’s expecting wife (Jones – TVs “Darling Buds of May”, “Entrapment”) is left to deal with the shock of seeing her providing husband locked away, leaving her to fend for herself and their son.
And in Washington, Judge Robert Wakefield (Douglas) is appointed the new Drug Czar, responsible for crushing drug trafficking in the US, but also facing the considerable shock of discovering that his own daughter is a heroin user.
Cutting sharply from one standpoint to the next, “Traffic” manages to link plots that relate only from the central theme. Javier and Manolo never come in direct contact with the politicans, the suffering wife of the drug trafficker never interacts with the devestated father of the drug addict. The director weaves their individual stories in a way that brings surprising cohesion to the movie.
Soderbergh is the main architect behind this films relative success. His method of skipping frames in certain scenes adds an anxious ‘twitch’ where required, and his use of coloured filters to represent certain scenes helps to add atmosphere without partitioning the story too much.
Benicio Del Toro delivers a stunning performance as the weathered cop who wants to win the war, and risks his life to do so. Sadly his fine acting was not matched by compelling action. Many of his scenes were subtitled and filled frequently with characters that were unknown, and hard to empathise with. I spent much of the time trying to computate what was going on down in Mexico.
Caroline (Erika Christensen), the teenage daughter of Judge Wakefield, excels as a girl rebelling against her perfect existence by living a life of twisted drug abuse and sexual decadence. Christensen is outstanding and her performance very reminiscent of that which made Julliet Lewis one to watch in the late eighties and early ninties. Douglas by comparison, is disappointing. His character is dull and at points, pathetic. The whole point here is that we have a man given the job of winning the war on drugs in the USA, but finds himself unable to win the war within his own family. Instead of feeling sympathy, I felt totally apathy.
His real-life wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, also struggles with her flawed character. Used to respect from her peers, the seemingly weak-willed Ayala finds herself shunned and broke after her husband is carted off to prison. With support from lecherous friend and attorney, Arnie (Dennis Quaid), she manipulates those around her to find solutions to her problems, no matter what the cost to others. But it just doesn’t make sense. At no point does she seem strong, or even hint at it. She is repulsed by her husbands seeming criminal activity, but as she crosses the same lines that he did, you are left wondering why her whole character goes 180 degrees.
Luckily Don Cheadle and the ever-reliable Luis Guzman are given time to entertain us, and the tools to deliver the best parts of the movie. Cheadle is emerging as one of Hollywood’s hottest talents and it is easy to see why he is being chased for a lot of the big movies now. Hopefully he will choose better than “Swordfish” next time – but I think the phrase is ‘strike while the iron is hot’.
Overally, “Traffic” is a puzzling movie. Uninspiring for the most part, but watchable in the end. Save for Soderbergh’s directorial antics, and the performances of Del Toro and Christensen, this would have been a dead loss.